Cross world communication…

During my past 20 years of world travel the way we communicate has changed beyond many peoples imagination. For centuries the handwritten letter, which had carried news of great empires, battles, decrees and Royal announcements was abandoned for the world of satellites and WiFi.

News which had (at times) taken years to get home was suddenly replaced with instant messages and images. Only 100 years ago, when Capt. Scott was lost in Antarctica, it took nine months before the news was reported (his written diary is a masterpiece of expedition literature and I was lucky enough to view it recently at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge). I have always hand written expedition diaries and have a wide collection from my adventures, which I use for research and memory jogging when it comes to names, photographs and sketches. Modern Polar explorers update blogs daily on a satellite phone, but for me the question is not always speed, but quality. Has twitter with 140 characters replaced the telegram? The physical answer is yes, but ask anyone who treasures a small piece of card with wonderful or tragic news on. You can keep a card forever…

I took part in a Raleigh International Expedition to Chile in 1994. The communication I had with home was post (which came infrequently) and one telephone call after around six weeks. You had to book a time at the local post office, step into a phone booth and pay after the call was over. A friend at home rolled up and posted me a broadsheet newspaper. It took a month to travel south and was treasured for weeks by everyone. We read every word, did all the puzzles and held entire debates over a story here and there. I still have the newspaper to this day…

Things had moved on by the time I was rescued from high on Mt. McKinley. Besides international calls, the fax machine was proving its worth. Doctors exchanged notes across the Atlantic and the time difference didn’t matter. Cards galore were posted to me, with the occasional fax for good measure. My employer even sent me one asking me not to worry about the project I was involved with. Believe me, my mind was somewhere much more challenging. I still have all the cards and faxes to this day…

I carry a letter or card from my family and loved ones onto the summit of every peak across the world I climb.  They are crumpled, bent and personal.  I still have them all…

E-mail made a huge difference to international communication. No longer were postal addresses needed, with letters timed and dated to coincide where you were. Suddenly a media existed where messages could find you anywhere at any time. When expeditions took me far and wide across the world I found that people at home could leave me a message that I could find in any web cafe across the world. Initially they were tatty and had slow connections, but over time this has changed dramatically. In fact many I know serve excellent coffee and cakes and have faster connection speeds than my own home. The problem I found was that the amount of communication rose and the quality dropped. Everyone wanted to say hello, but we couldn’t always find a cafe and never seemed to have the time to be personal. The written with ink touch still held a place in my heart, where the typed work seemed to fail…

For many years I loved listening to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America. I wonder if an e-mail from America would have held the same feeling, emotion and power?

The mobile phone was once exactly what it’s called – a phone, but all that has changed. Firstly texting and now the web based world of social networking has brought worldwide communication to everyones fingertips. This was a huge move as no more did time pass in-between expedition communications. Suddenly we were at everyones beckon call, particularly when it came to sponsorship. This is a world where I have little or no involvement, but I know from many friends that updates to websites and the press are demanded to get the funding on which many expeditions rely.  I’ve had many calls and messages from the press over the years regarding my exploits and work hard to keep in touch, but it’s not always easy. When you’re high in the mountains there is little chance of getting a signal. Saying that I’ve known people make calls high on Ama Dablam in Nepal, but I felt the line was being pushed too far. The mountains are precious and my mind is focused on the ascent in hand. One chap was talking for (what seemed like) hours through the night and many people were tired of the invasion of peace…

There are good sides to online networking too. I plan trips using Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter with people across the world, exchange pictures and videos online and keep in touch with many friends more than I ever could writing letters.

One trend I notice with Social Networking is the desire for ‘followers’. The more there are, the better for you (apparently), but I feel that just because 10,000 people follow what you say, doesn’t mean that they read it.  Quality is surely better than quantity..?

There are dangers, particularly when personal information creeps in, but you only have yourself to blame if you chose to share intimate information online with another. It rarely stays personal…

Regardless of my dreaming, we cannot (and must not) shy away from progress.  Digital communication and Social Networking has happened whether we like it or not and we must stay ahead of the game.  Do not forget the past, but embrace the future or risk getting left behind.

Regardless of all this, I still write letters to my family and friends. Yes they take time, yes they cost money, yes they sound old fashioned, but when I sit at my Grandmothers Edwardian writing desk I open my heart and soul in a way that the world wide web will never see or understand…

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